What's next for regional transit in SE Michigan? An update after the 2016 ballot failure

On Sept. 7, online retailer Amazon announced that it would be opening up a second headquarters and issued a request for proposals to interested municipalities across the country. After the news hit, Southeast Michigan stakeholders wondered if perhaps Detroit or another suburb capable of accumulating land like Livonia or Novi might have a shot at luring the lucrative office complex, which Amazon estimated would result in 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in local investment.

The initial excitement was tempered, however, once it became clear that one of Amazon's "Core Preferences" for the site is access to mass transit—not exactly an asset in our region.

According to 2014 numbers from the National Transit Database (NTD), for regions with populations over 65,000, metro Detroit ranked 134th in per capita transit trips. The transit advocacy organization Transportation Riders United put out a report card in 2012 grading the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) bus service. According to executive director Megan Owens, it received "a big fat F."
Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United
"There were days when one-third of buses scheduled didn't operate [and] half didn't arrive when they were supposed to," she says. "And riders had no way to know."

Since then, Owens says, service has improved, thanks to better leadership under DDOT director Dan Dirks, implementation of bus tracking applications, and the addition of RefleX bus lines along Woodward and Gratiot avenues that have fewer stops, are more reliable, and cross city and county lines without transfers.

But most believe the improvements aren't nearly enough to attract Amazon. "It's still sorely lacking compared to any other major city," says Owens, citing analysis by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) that found that our region spends $67 per capita on transit services compared with an average of $231 per capita from peer regions.

Southeast Michigan had a chance to drastically improve its public transit in the 2016 election. A proposal was on the ballot in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties to raise $3 billion dollars through a property tax millage—a yearly average of slightly less than $100 per home—to support a bevy of regional transit services for the next 20 years. It failed by just over 18,000 votes or about 1 percent.

Since the election, those invested in the success of regional transit have conducted a postmortem and are regrouping for another attempt. But there are some definite obstacles to overcome if regional transit will make an appearance on the ballot once more in 2018, or even 2020.

What happened?

Map by Steven Wiltse

Transit advocates' first task is understanding why the measure failed and how to better communicate the advantages of the millage to skeptical voters.

A number of factors contributed to the proposal's failure, like the conservative enthusiasm that swept Donald Trump into the presidency or the fact that, days before the plan was to be approved by the RTA board, Oakland and Macomb county executives L. Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel, heads of the two counties that voted against the proposal, expressed their reservations and nearly scuttled it entirely. They never fully endorsed it, either.

But interim RTA CEO Tiffany Gunter, who assumed her role after the 2016 election, believes the campaign itself was a bigger issue. "The way voters like to engage is face-to-face," she says. "But there was a much greater focus on TV and radio ads, and I think that hurt us tremendously."

Joel Batterman, co-founder of Motor City Freedom Riders, a grassroots bus rider advocacy organization, says what the ads emphasized was wrong as well. "Voters just thought it was a new tax," he says. "We very much believe that with more effective voter education—more emphasis on the concrete benefits in the proposal, what routes would go where—the proposal would have passed."

For example, the funds would have gone towards creating dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit along three corridors (Gratiot, Woodward, and Michigan avenues), including a line to the airport; a rail line connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor; airport express bus lines originating from all over the region; more and better local buses; cross-county buses; shuttle service for the infirm; and more.

In other words, the RTA millage would have connected all the major population centers in Southeast Michigan to jobs, schools, and recreation. The economic windfall was potentially huge. According to a 2014 study by the American Public Transportation Association, $4 is returned to the local economy for every dollar spent on public transit.

Nonetheless, many voters in outlying suburbs in Oakland and Macomb, who would have had less local access to the new lines, voted against the measure. Richard MurphyTransit advocates say there are arguments to be made even to these voters for the merits of regional transit.

"A phrase I heard during the campaign was, 'Some of us use it, all of us need it,'" says Richard Murphy, former RTA Washtenaw County board member and later member of the RTA's citizens advisory council (CAC). "It may not be you personally who's riding, but if it gets your aging parent to the doctor so they're not dependent on you for a ride, it's still benefiting you and your circle. If it helps your neighbor get to a job rather than being unemployed, it has an impact on you and your community. So it's one of those things where as a region, we're in it together."

Back on the ballot

Before residents of the four counties can vote on the measure again, it first has to get back on the ballot.

Gunter notes that for a first-time ballot measure, failing by 1 percent is still impressive, and that the major pieces of the proposal were solid. But most agree that modifications can be made to improve it.

For starters, there was nothing in the original proposal to address the inevitable introduction of self-driving cars and advances in mobility services technology into the region's transit system. And it will likely happen sooner here than other parts of the country.

"Southeast Michigan is obviously the hub of the auto industry in the United States," says Adela Spulber, a transportation systems analyst at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). "So it is, and will remain, a very important hub when talking strictly about connected autonomous vehicular technology."

The region has nationally important autonomous vehicle testing facilities, like Mcity in Ann Arbor; the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township, which is expected to open in December this year; and a Toyota Research Institute office in Ann Arbor. Google's self-driving car project, Waymo, is collaborating with Chrysler to put hundreds of self-driving cars on the road. Ford and General Motors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology. And the University of Michigan just introduced a driverless shuttle service on its campus.

Spulber says that the impacts of the autonomous vehicles on public transit are potentially huge. And while the research is still inconclusive, the region needs to prepare for the technology as best it can. Spulber is also a member of the RTA's CAC and believes the agency is taking more active steps this time around to address the issue.

"Both autonomous vehicles and mobility services are on their agenda as things to explore," Spulber says, citing potential additions to the system like autonomous shuttles to improve first-last mile connections, for paratransit services, and as a substitute during the late hours when public transit is infrequent.

But all this talk is moot if the RTA board doesn't pass a ballot proposal. Such a measure requires virtual consensus as seven of the nine members (two from each county and one from Detroit), and at least one from each county, have to vote yes. There have been discussions about excluding the outlying municipalities in Oakland and Macomb from the millage, and therefore the vote, but that would require the Michigan legislature to rewrite the RTA's charter.

There's been some additional concern in Oakland and Macomb because there will also be a millage on the 2018 ballot for SMART, metro Detroit's bus system, which could create confusion for voters. Complicating matters even more is that theTiffany Gunter, interim CEO of the Regional Transit Authority RTA, which was founded in 2013, will have to find alternative sources for funding in 2020 if a millage isn't passed by then.

But Gunter says that overall, negotiations between the counties have proceeded smoothly and she's confident that a major transit initiative will ultimately pass. "I've been encouraged by what I've heard so far," she says. "There's been no breakdown in communication and the commitment to regional transit is still strong."

Batterman wants the proposal on the ballot in 2018, believing it to be critically important not just for improving access, but also regional unity, since the connections created by transit are representative of larger social issues.

"The work of renewing our democracy has to start at the local level," he says. "The fight for transit is an opportunity for people to get engaged in the work of building a stronger metro democracy and region that is not a collection of warring camps, but the kind of community where we care about each other and that works for everyone."
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.